I’ve always been attracted by them. The first utopia ever written could have been Plato’s Republic. Or the Genesis. However, the first one I discovered was Thomas More’s Utopia. I still can’t believe it was written 498 years ago, in 1516.
The Garden of Earthly Delights, inner left wing (Paradise).
Date: between 1480 and 1505. Source: Wikipedia
Utopia is a strange book. Most scholars agree it’s a satire, a criticism of contemporary European society. However, there is something that puzzles everyone: Thomas More was a devout member of the Catholic Church, but his Utopian views on divorce, euthanasia and priests marriage all contradict these beliefs.
The word itself is a treat: Utopia (Οὐτοπία) means good (ευ), not (οὐ) and place (topos, τόπος), but it also has the suffix -iā (-ία) that is used in toponyms (names of places). So it’s “good-no-place” as well as “good-place-land“… and my favourite: “no-place-place”.
More’s Utopia is placed in the New World, and is told through a traveller named Raphael. Here’s something interesting about it, especially if you consider the time: There is no private property on Utopia. Well, except for slaves. Everyone (else) works and lives equally (and women mostly do household chores…). People seem to live together in harmony, though. Hospitals are free, there is no unemployment. There are multiple religions in Utopia, although atheists are allowed but despised: “They don’t believe in any punishment or reward after this life, they have no reason to share the communistic life of Utopia, and will break the laws for their own gain”.
More’s work gave utopias a name. After him came many more. Sir Francis Bacon wrote New Atlantis in 1624, and described a future for humanity of discovery and knowledge. Bacon’s Utopia is about generosity and enlightenment, dignity and splendour, piety and public spirit. In 1602, an Italian philosopher, theologian, astrologer, and poet called Tommasso Campanella described his City of the Sun, a theocratic society where goods, women and children are held in common.
There are all kinds of utopias. Scientific and technological ones often refer to the absence of death and suffering, and to changes in human nature (Star Trek is one of them!). There are also feminist utopias, and religious utopias. And there are dystopias, undesirable or frightening societies.
Most of the early utopian books mentioned before were accompanied by beautiful illustrations. Illustrations were, after all, a way of visualizing imaginary worlds.
Some utopian imagery of these intriguing no-place-places:
Illustration for the 1516 first edition of Utopia. The island of Utopia, surrounded by seas, with castles and buildings. Source: Wikipedia
Abraham Ortelius’ map of Utopia, from circa 1595
Thomas More’s Utopia – communal living. Source: British Library
Thomas More’s Utopia – Moral Philosophy. Date of Illustration: 1885
In 1850 Sir Titus Salt (a textile mill owner) announced plans to build a model industrial community called Saltaire at a nearby beauty spot. Saltaire was built in twenty years. Its textile mill was the largest and most modern in Europe.
A bird’s eye view of a community in New Harmony, Indiana, United States, as proposed by Robert Owen. Engraving by F. Bate, London 1838.
This book by Ebenezer Howard offered a vision of towns free of slums and enjoying the benefits of both town (such as opportunity, amusement and high wages) and country (such as beauty, fresh air and low rents). Source: Wikipedia